Tales from the frontline

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

  • Published
Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah, 20 March 2011Image source, Reuters

Goran Tomasevic has been covering conflict for nearly 20 years. His career began in 1991 for the daily newspaper, Politika, in the former Yugoslavia, then in 1996 he started working for Reuters as a freelance photographer, covering the anti-Milosevic demonstrations.

His work for Reuters has taken him to many war zones from where he has made pictures that have come to define a number of conflicts, including the shot of the fallen statue that came to symbolise the fall of Saddam in Iraq.

He has recently returned from Libya, having been in the country for more than a month covering the current unrest. His pictures have made the front pages around the world, one in particular (above) catching the eye of editors. It appeared on more than 70 front pages.

Photojournalists are under more pressure than ever to get the shots and to transmit them as quickly as possible, here Goran provides some of the back story behind a number of the pictures he took on the frontline, beginning with the one at the top of this page.

Here is what Goran said:

"I was maybe between 150-200 metres from the explosion, it's pretty much full frame. This picture was really easy, just point and shoot, it didn't take much imagination. Sometimes you need to get creative and shoot it this way or that way, but this one it just happened. Before the explosion, I didn't hear anything and I don't know how the rebels reacted after the explosion as they were behind me. Sometimes I looked around and saw them shouting.

"I didn't know when I took it that this picture would be used everywhere. I knew it was going to be used, because of a story like this, but I like more some of the other pictures I took on the same day, with the rebels in the frame. It's a very simple picture which is why I am surprised it was used so widely.

Image source, Reuters

"The other day when a shell exploded right near the rebel fighters, it reminded me of the pictures I took of Sergeant Bee in Afghanistan. You just photograph by reflex. You don't know what you're doing at that time. Then you just check the pictures and you're like wow. If I didn't have a Mark 4 (Canon EOS-1D Mark IV capable of shooting up to 10 frames per second, Ed) or some other really fast camera, I wouldn't have these pictures.

"It's pretty dangerous. Not like Kosovo though. Nothing was like Kosovo. It's kind of hard to say though. You have a close call and you are lucky. In any of those places that I covered, it just takes one moment to be unlucky. We were fortunate because the shells hit the sand all the time. It would be totally different impact if the shells hit rocks or cement, the shrapnel would fly much more. But, it's enough for just one piece of shrapnel to hit you.

"I don't believe in running when bombs are being dropped. Sometimes the bombs would land maybe 50-200 metres away. I'd usually sit down and watch exactly what was happening. The best thing that you can do is to stay low; there is nowhere to run, even if I was to run back, I saw the shells falling behind me. Occasionally I would jump onto the back of one of the rebel's vehicles as they would head back from the front lines."

On a practical level Goran was aware of the dangers and after a few days asked his editors how far he could push it, he said:

"I spoke with my managers to see how far forward I could go. Initially they tried to stop me but later they let me travel with a security guy, Sam. He was fantastic and really helped a lot. After many years, I had someone I could discuss the situation with. It was really good for me to discuss everything with him. I didn't have to have him full time next to me but he knew where I was. In certain situations we were alone together. It was nice to have someone there that I could trust.

Image source, Reuters

"These RPG pictures were easy to shoot. I would just start photographing before they fired. Most of the time, they look in the air and pray before firing. When they put their head up, I would start to shoot. I believe there are a lot of former soldiers from Gaddafi's army in the rebel force now, they just changed sides. I saw the rebels driving tanks and APCs. Each Libyan must do military service so many men know how to handle weapons and military vehicles. When I arrived, there was one guy driving an APC like a Formula One car.

"The 8 March was the most risky day. It was really bad; a terrible day and it was hard to take pictures. There were three or four rebels injured, one of them had a completely shattered leg. His feet were next to him. I didn't transmit the picture showing his shattered leg, it was just too terrible. The guy was in complete shock. It happened just 100 metres in front of me. He was running back when a missile exploded. It was really frustrating to have something happen like this and really not have any pictures.

Image source, Reuters

"There was one rebel that I saw all the time, a funny guy. He never stopped smiling. We went together, by accident, behind Gaddafi lines. We ran back behind rebel lines with the Gaddafi forces shooting at us. I saw him a couple of times after that and took his picture. He wore what looked like a US army uniform and always wore flip flops. On the last day he told me: 'Don't go there, Gaddafi will kill you.'

Image source, Reuters

"I don't know why the rebels couldn't load this multiple rocket launcher. This was really funny. It's a Russian made multiple rocket launcher and we used to have these in Serbia. The rebels didn't want any pictures of them loading it. They started to push the journalists back. They didn't want to show that they have this sort of rocket launcher. They stopped most of my colleagues from taking pictures. I just went around and shot quickly and managed to get the photo.

Image source, Reuters

"There was only one day when the rebels weren't really happy with me and they basically tried to grab my cameras. It was when one of the rebels pointed a gun at another guy who seemed to be a Gaddafi supporter. It was only in that moment that they didn't like that I took the picture, but I still managed to get two frames. One of them was good. Honestly, I was not sure if he was a supporter or not. He was an accused supporter. They spoke Arabic and started pointing so I ran near them to shoot some pictures. First you shoot the pictures and then you ask about the circumstances. I don't know what happened to him after the confrontation, they took him in a car. I believe he's most likely in a prison in Benghazi.

Image source, Reuters

"This was the day that most of the journalists left Benghazi. It was when coalition forces were bombing Gaddafi tanks. I heard a lot of noise from the house where I was staying. There were people shooting into the air as the rebels had come across a tank captured from the Gaddafi forces. The rebels are were really excited and optimistic after the coalition air strikes.

"At times there was a lot of uncertainty. You just really didn't know what was cooking. There were some scary moments. Things exploded nearby. The most important thing is to know what you are doing, and then you can control things a little better.

"I'm always making plans and always thinking how to keep myself safe. It's just that you can't predict what's going to happen. You push a little bit and then you stop and you look again and then you go again. And then you say to yourself, yes, I'm really going to push some more. And then you say to yourself, I don't care if you're afraid, you have to go ahead more. And then you end up behind Gaddafi's lines…

"I don't have any plans at the moment to go back but we'll see where the story goes. I'll have to check with Steve (Crisp, chief photographer for the Middle East) after I've taken a break. Then I can see where to go; Syria, Yemen or Ivory Coast. I'm going to do my job and I'm happy to do it.

"I don't have any problem stepping back into my normal life; not at all. I just go out, eat a couple of steaks and drink a lot of beer. I check out the football and I'm happy. I'm not one of the photographers who have bad dreams but I have memories. You learn something from each of these memories."